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Doing The Good We Want

Psalm 72; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


July 5, 2020 – 5th Sunday after Pentecost

Paul boasts in his second letter to the Corinthians of being taken to the third heaven and being told things no mortal can speak…but then…he notes that a thorn was put in his flesh…a messenger of Satan, he says…to keep him from being too elated.

He writes that he asked God three times to remove that thorn, but each time God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul was a package, with strengths and weaknesses. We are all packages, he writes…full of pluses and minuses…protons and electrons. Our lives, he notes, are filled with joy and sorrow.

Today Paul writes to us that this thorn in his flesh keeps him from doing the thing he wants and causes him to do the very thing he does not want to do.

Quite the package, this capable, brilliant, determined man who was Greek and Jew and Roman…free as any man in his day…but bedeviled by some flaw…or what he saw to be a flaw…that repeatedly frustrated him and his plans.

Many people have speculated on what that thorn…that messenger of Satan…was. I have my own theory: I think our friend Paul had a temper that did not serve him well.

When we meet him at the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, he is holding the cloaks of those who do the stoning. Then he goes from house to house dragging out people suspected of being friends of this Jesus. He breathes murder and threats against the followers of Jesus as he heads to Damascus.

This fellow Paul is wound up pretty tight…spring-loaded in the angry position. But while this thorn in his flesh makes things complicated for him, this same passion to do right is the thing that makes it possible for him to do mighty things.

This is the same thorn that emboldens us…then makes us humble enough to look back dispassionately at ourselves.

With experience in the world and experience in ourselves, then, we can become whole…strong and weak…capable and conscious…of our power and our limitations.

All of this goes into Paul’s expression of frustration this morning. He has so much to do and so much to do it with, but the very things that make it possible for him to do it also incline him to error.

Once again, we do not have power. It is power that has us. So how is it that we become wise enough to do the good we want…yet keeps us from doing the thing we hate?

We can pray. We can read of the great men and women of the Bible who faced terrible tests and survived and grew and contributed to the humility of all humankind so that we could find our way through the emotions and the thickets of self-importance…all the way to the Promised Land.

This brings me back to my old three-part brain theory, too. We have our reptilian brain that reacts without thinking to perceived threats. We have our mammalian brain that is our social self…wanting to get along with everyone.

Then we have our neo-cortex, our long-range memory and our long-range planning capability. When we mix these all together, I hear the psalmist proclaiming we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Once again, we see the Apostle Paul in all his complexity…and all his anguish…and all his glory wrapped into quite the package to hear the story of the Christ…to reject it…to be convicted by it…to claim it… and to cast it forward into the future…where it calls to us even this very day…July 5th, 2020.

It takes all of the package we are to live a full and meaningful life. The place to begin is by doing the right thing…the thing that loves God…the thing honors our mother and our father…and the thing that loves our neighbors.

There is a coincidence with this tripartite vision of humanity that is at the heart of who we are as Americans. We have a three-part democracy.

Our Executive Branch is the first responder, protecting us from dangers at home and abroad. Our Legislative Branch is our social selves, requiring us to get along to move forward. Our Judiciary is called to review the actions of those two…and to make corrections when necessary.

It’s just a coincidence, and this is not science I’m talking here, but I just note on this day after the 4th of July, 240 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that the one government in all the history of the world that gave all power to the people and then set the three branches up to argue between them…to assure it was the people who held all power…has somehow become the greatest, most powerful nation in the history of the world.

Then I see that this kind of reminds me of God telling Paul that power is perfected in weakness. Our English cousins taught us this with Magna Carta and the right of trial by jury. They both came together, along with the separation of church and state to help build up the colonies as the New World was being established.

William Penn, the son of a famous and powerful man, was a Quaker when the British Parliament passed a law forbidding public assemblies of more than five people…except for the Church of England. When Penn was locked out of the Quaker meeting house in 1670, he took action and preached in the street.

He was arrested for committing a breach of the peace they hauled him before the magistrate. His defense was that there was no disturbance… it was a farce that speaking the word of God could disrupt the peace… and it was his right…as an Englishman…to speak his mind and live out his faith…in England of all places.

As soon as the trial closed the magistrate ordered the jury to convict. The jury went out and came back to report: one of the jurors refused to do so.

The magistrate sent the jury back out with a threat that the holdout on the verdict would be put in jail if he persisted…so they had better come back with a unanimous verdict.

The jury retired for a while and they did return with a unanimous verdict …Not Guilty. This established the authority of the jury to find a good and true verdict no matter what the authorities ordered. The power was with the people.

As a result of his defiance of raw power and his fidelity to his principles, the English government banished him in a very generous way. They gave him a land-grant in the New World…America…that we now know as Penn-sylvania.

That is the way power is. God makes the wise foolish and the foolish wise in God’s own time, as Jesus says this morning, in rebuking the religious authorities of his day. Perhaps it is the structural humility of our form of government that has delivered it to the brink of greatness.

We a blessed with a great heritage in our government…and in our spiritual lives. We are invited into the mysteries of the earth and the heavens when we can sit quietly and seek to be at one with God.

We ‘atone’ when we seek to be ‘at one’ with our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer. We seek to be in rhythm with the power of the universe and we lose sight of our need to be right…to have power… to play God…and then…like a cork upon the ocean…we become free… to do the little…and the much… that we mere mortals can do to bend the arc of history…maybe even to make that arc swerve to the Good of all humankind…as Jesus did.

It is prayer…quiet contemplation at the throne of God…that centers and it gives us the grace to look beyond ourselves and into the hearts and minds of others…and our own selves.

John Wesley arrived at three simple rules. First, do no harm. Second, do good. Third stay in love with God.

In other words, we are called by Jesus himself to use our free will to make good choices…after we have run the question through all of the different ways of seeing and being that God has given us to live and grow…and have arrived at a resolution that is at one with our neighbors…at one with the world in which we live…and at one with the one who is all truth and all power and all love.

It is then that we can do the good we want. It is only then. May it be now…as we face a pandemic… strife at home and challenges abroad…and the last best hope of humankind once again hangs in the balance.

God bless America, land of the truly free and the sublimely brave. Let us see once again by dawn’s early light the Word God has sent into the world…and into this New World.

O Lord, what is it that you seek to do in the world…through us… through me…this day. Amen.